Ignoring Bad Incentives

By 05/27/2011

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My colleague, Katherine Mackey, and I had the opportunity to visit Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif. recently, where teacher Rich Julian’s 5th-grade math class has thrown out the typical math curriculum and instead given every child their own laptop, adopted the online Khan Academy math curriculum and assessments, and allowed the students to proceed at their own pace through any part of the 5th-grade curriculum.

The results are stunning. Katherine blogged about one aspect here of how much the children work with each other. There are many other fascinating aspects, too, not the least of which was that every single student was on task the whole time we were there (I’ve visited the school twice, and it’s been the same each time). A few children have progressed to trigonometry, and one child in another classroom in the district doing the pilot even progressed to calculus and solved roughly 200 straight problems correctly involving the chain rule. The fact that had these children not had this opportunity to escape today’s monolithic, time-bound system they would have been “simply” doing “5th-grade math” amounts to education malpractice.

An obvious question that emerges is why don’t we see more of this happening? This happened in Los Altos because there was great leadership throughout the district. The school board, superintendent, principals, and the select teachers running the pilot all saw the potential, were willing to throw out everything they knew about how schooling worked, and make the leap.

But the reality is there are many disincentives in place for this to happen. It takes people willing to ignore the incentives to make this work. For example, the school, its teacher, and the district don’t get more dollars for having brought students well beyond 5th-grade math; they don’t get credit in any way. The district may even ultimately be penalized if in high school now these students take classes offered at a nearby college and it has to pay for this.

And of course the students themselves still have to take the 5th-grade math exam at the end of the year with all of their peers—even if they have progressed well beyond these concepts, which makes the routine a silly and even insulting exercise governed by the elements of our system anchored in time.

At the Carpe Diem College High School in Yuma, Ariz., another favorite school of mine as readers of our research know, Rick Ogston, who founded the school, says the percentage of special needs and English language learner students drop over time in his school. It’s not because these students leave the school though or because the school cherry picks its students. It’s because that as Carpe Diem helps the students learn and get up to speed, these designations no longer make sense and are stifling to the students. Of course, because our school system pays based on attributes about you and not an individual student’s growth, by removing these designations, Carpe Diem ignores the system’s incentives and forfeits thousands of dollars for doing the right thing. How many people around the country do this?

And this is just the beginning. One way to unlock innovation in our school system and help it transform into a student-centric one is to get out of our own way and eliminate these disincentives. But waiting for superheroes across the country to ignore them is not a sound strategy.

– Michael B. Horn

Comment on this article
  • peter says:

    I was very impressed by this pilot when I first read about it, but actually your comments above have me concerned; particularly about the child solving calculus problems. The mechanics behind calculus/derivatives/the chain rule are pretty tricky. It makes me worry that much of the learning is purely by rote. I don’t believe this is necessarily bad, but the question is what the optimal allocation of the child’s time is: Learning more material by rote, or learning less material in greater depth. This assumes the child didn’t pick up on concepts of limits, derivatives, etc.–maybe this is wrong and the child understands all of this. Did you ask the kids any conceptual questions about material they’ve learned? Thanks.

  • Michael B. Horn says:

    Thanks, Peter. Good point. I had some similar concerns and talked with the students. The reality is because of the way the program is structured, students can both go at their own pace, experiment and try different things, and they also have to do group work where they have to go deep into particular concepts. Also, there are only a couple students who have accelerated this rapidly — and at least one of them wakes up at odd hours of the night and watches videos on math and plays with equations, so…

  • Peter says:

    Thanks for your response. I’m glad to hear the program is multifaceted. And your last statement reinforces how a child who is interested in math/learning can, even outside the classroom, find time to challenge his or her self further. Are the quizzes and practice questions all available online as well?

    Sorry for all the questions, I’m an education/economics researcher–I find it all pretty interesting. I was thinking about this type of program in less-wealthy districts than Los Altos, the problem is families in low-income areas often lack internet access…

  • Michael B. Horn says:

    My understanding is that all the quizzes and practice questions are online for free but I’ll confess that I’m not positive. What most people don’t realize actually is that Sal Khan started with exercises before video–but the video was what took off first.

    Also, you’re asking good questions. It’s interesting in general — online learning has taken off the most in rural and urban school districts that lack resources, because it’s been the most economical way to level the playing field. Broadband access, however, remains a key barrier.

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